Kayla sat slumped against a crumbling wall, gazing beyond the clouds, into the burning pinpricks of the sun’s rays. She was trying to stare spitefully into the light, but the defiant star wouldn’t cooperate. Its fire had never seared her eyes or flesh before, but she hoped today would bring just a little pain, some small change, anything that would jar her out of this apathetic existence and push her forward. She tried not to blink. Kayla pressed her back harder into the wall, seeking the uncomfortable heat that was generated by the kilns baking pottery on the other side. She held her breath, searching the sky for meaning. Nothing was different.
With her head still upturned, she pulled a thin, worn box out from under her blouse with the grace of a movement often repeated. Kayla tugged on the chain around her neck, her fingers trailing over the wood grain of the locket before she pressed it hard against her chest. It was as if the palm-sized box could be wedged into all those hollow spaces within her.
She sat motionless for a long time before opening the clasp with a quick jerk of her thumb and bringing her head down solemnly to gaze at the photograph nestled in her hands. Kayla’s eyes went first to the man with red hair so like her own. His face was turned to meet the wind as it lifted his locks from his shoulders. He was laughing, eyes closed. His arm was around another, younger man who watched him with a look of smiling admiration. Kayla’s brow furrowed a bit as she focused on the wiry youth. His brown hair was just long enough for him to pull back loosely into a short ponytail, revealing a boy’s face set with intense eyes. Under the photograph was scribbled: Steelryn and Serafin. She sighed, her eyes traveling as they always did to the letter set beside the picture.
It’s a wonder this photograph survived the last four years. Finding it gave me hope, and it makes me remember what our names still mean when heard together. I realize now that when Kiera and Kayla were taken, with them went our reason, our comfort. Tomorrow we fight, and although we can’t regain all that was lost, we will lift your wife and daughter up out of darkness.
Kayla quickly snapped the hinged box closed so her falling tears wouldn’t mar the only relics of her past. Her hand gripped the box tightly, a corner digging into her palm. She didn’t understand. She couldn’t remember her parents, and no one here knew anything about Asher Serafin. Kayla always thought that one day her history would be revealed to her, but she was more than halfway through her seventeenth year and couldn’t wait any longer for a sign that might never come. She had already run out of excuses to stay. Thrusting her treasure back beneath her blouse, Kayla stood up in one quick movement, legs unsteady, and wiped her dirty palms onto her linen pants before smearing her tears away. She wouldn’t give herself time to change her mind.
When she reached the small room in the back of the pottery studio, her nervous steps stilled. She looked down at her bed roll in the corner, the few drawings she stuck to the wall and her little trunk beneath the work table. Kayla tried to muster up some heart-swelling emotion for this last visit to the only shelter she could remember, but her chest and head felt numb. The romantic notion of her flight was already dampened, simply by being in this place. She began to fill a bag with her few belongings, but a heavy sense of apathy seemed to come from the air and walls around her, seeping into her skin, slowing her movements.
“Oh my, what are you doing, dear?”
Kayla whirled around, flushed and gulping. “I’m leaving, Miss Helena,” she blurted out, the words violently escaping her lips. “I don’t belong here. I’m grateful for everything you have done for me, but I have to find out . . . I have to know—”
“Yes, yes, you will.” The old woman’s words were slow and quiet, causing Kayla’s fevered confession to fall, neutralized, into their void. “Explore and know, yes, good. But for now, there is work to be done.” She gently extracted the bag from Kayla’s stiff fingers as she guided the girl to the door.
“No, I . . . I . . .”
“You have such lovely dreams and they’ll all be yours, but first there is greenware that must be loaded into the kiln.” Helena released Kayla’s arms from the steering clasp of her hands when they reached a shelf of dull, gray pots.
The girl felt her shoulders sag as the rush of independence she experienced just moments earlier was suddenly sapped away. “Do you think tomorrow will be different?” she whispered.
“Why, each day is.”
Kayla barely felt the encouraging pat land on her arm before the old woman left her alone with her duties. She was still for a long stretch before her body began to move on its own, performing this familiar task with delicacy and precision, even with limbs deadened by her bruised spirit. She looked down at the pitcher in her hands. The surface of the vessel was decorated with twisted branches, sprouting leaves as they climbed to the sun. Something about these trees caused her pulse to quicken again. She set the pot back on the shelf with trembling hands. Why could she never hold on to her nerve? Her passion was always cooled before it could start a fire. Still, there were moments when she felt like something braver than herself, when she almost grasped memories that made her feel flooded with life.
She held the vision of those branches in her mind as she ran out of the studio and into the street. She could hear the neighbors calling her name and their voices were what kept her feet from slowing, even as her breath shortened. When she thought her heart would explode, Kayla saw the familiar branches and she stopped, her body suddenly light, her gasps for air triumphant. Her eyes moved over the broad, flat leaves, and then drifted to the darkness beyond, where the trees grew more densely. This wasn’t her first time here at the border of the village. The past few weeks she’d found herself at this spot, and somehow, here, she was reminded of her ability to dream. Here, out of sight of the squat buildings and simple faces that inhabited the town, her bones felt restless, as if they wanted to burst through the boundaries of her body and ascend to the sun. Kayla held her breath and felt the air touch her skin with the soft pressure of an embrace. In the rustling of the leaves there was the echo of her name, spoken with some unfamiliar emotion that inspired her to throw off everything she knew for the vision of its source.
She closed her eyes. Here, in this place, it was hard to imagine these feelings disappearing, but she knew if she returned to the village she might never again gather the courage to leave. Hope, fear, and a new sense of urgency beat painfully in her head. She grabbed her locket. It had been years since she accepted that her parents were dead and she was finally old enough to stop fantasizing their return. But if she could just find this Asher Serafin, if he was still alive, she could at least understand what happened to them and what led her here.
Kayla’s toes ventured further into the shadows cast by the trees and she saw the beginnings of a road forming between clumps of fallen leaves. She had heard of a city named Madeline, a few miles to the north. It was her only beacon: the notion of a place where there might be news beyond the evasive and blank eyes of everyone in this nameless town she was leaving behind. Asher Serafin. Kayla felt the searing force of his image in every pulse beating against her temples, his name in every labored breath. She would find him.
Kayla didn’t know how long she had been walking, but as the hours passed, the road dissolved further into swampy ground. The air smelled ominously of fire and ash, and as her surroundings were becoming increasingly tree-choked, she felt as if the gathering darkness threatened to swallow her. Kayla pressed on, too afraid to stop and rest, but too tired to keep up even her slowed pace for long. The righteousness of her cause that served as her driving force was beginning to waver. She fought to control her breathing in order to keep her thoughts from panic, focusing on the simple task of trudging forward.
She heard the sound of an argument before she saw the flicker of a campfire in the distance. A man’s voice reached her ears first. “What the hell was that, anyways? A set up? I’ve never seen a basic relic seize turn into that kind of clusterfuck. When we get back, I promise you someone’s gonna pay for this!”
Kayla froze, listening. A girlish voice followed the man’s growl. “Oh, stop. You act like we’ve never run into trouble before.”
“I’m not talking about the ambush. In case you didn’t notice, we were abandoned by our own, left to die beneath a burning building—” She could hear an edge of pain in his angered snarl.
The little girl giggled. “Lay down. I’ll watch you kill them later, but rest now, okay?”
Her curiosity piqued, Kayla crept closer, careful to stay off to the side of the pair’s small camp. The man sighed heavily. “I hate you.”
She heard another childlike laugh. “You’re so cute when you’re bleeding.”
The ground fell out from under Kayla’s feet so suddenly that she didn’t have time to stop her scream from escaping. She groaned, more from dread than from the aching pain coursing down her backside after her rough landing. She held her breath, waiting for her eyes to adjust to this deeper darkness, and sat helplessly, knowing it wouldn’t be long before she met the two strangers. Above her, a small flame appeared and she could hear the young girl calling out, the sound closer than before.
“Jeremy, it’s a girl in a hole.”
The distant voice yelled back, uninterested. “I know. Girls scream like that.”
“C’mon! Let’s help her out.”
“You told me to lie down.” She could hear him rolling his eyes.
The girl let out a snort of impatience. “Fine, I’ll do it myself!” A large pair of brown eyes peered over the edge above, the light from the torch revealing a child’s form, bronzed skin and long, dark hair sprinkled with thin braids. She extended her small arm. “I’ll pull you out.”
Kayla frowned. How could she be lifted up by a girl barely more than half her size? Despite her doubts, she slowly stood up and reached for her rescuer. The little girl stretched her arm further into Kayla’s pit, grunting with the effort, the sound rising to a scream as she inched too far and tumbled forward, knocking them both down to the wet earth below. Before the shriek ended, Kayla could hear Jeremy running towards them, calling, “Kit!”
“Down here!” the child yelled back. The torch was still burning on the ground above them, and Kayla watched the girl’s eyes shining with expectation.
“Jesus, Kit!” breathed the voice from above. Kayla looked up. She could see a young man’s features, transitioning from concern to relief to tight-lipped laughter. No longer fearing for his friend’s safety, his gaze then focused on Kayla. His unruly black hair hung down around his face, but his blue eyes were clear and striking, emerging unnervingly from the deep shadows cast over his form. A thin trickle of blood ran from an almost-closed gash on his forehead. His smile vanished. “Alright, Kit, take my hand.”
Jeremy leaned deeply into the hole, hoisting out the smaller girl with ease. Then he hesitated, exchanging a long glance with Kit. Sighing, he extended his hand again, reaching for Kayla. His arm was bandaged tightly with white cotton, smeared with blood and dirt, his fingertips naked, the tails of his bandages swinging loosely. She timidly held out her hand, gulping down air in an attempt to slow her heartbeat. He reached for her and she closed her eyes, but with his touch came a sudden, blinding pain, and she was released as quickly as she was grasped.
Kayla fell onto her knees, turning away from the light above. She held her throbbing hand close to her chest, biting her lip to keep from crying out. Her fingers pulsated and burned; it felt as if her bones were pressing outwards. Kayla’s eyes widened as she watched a bony protrusion issue out from her palm and land heavily on the ground before her. First she examined her hand, and when she found it unbloodied and whole, she had the strength to lift the strange object close to her face. It looked like the hilt of a sword, formed organically by a fusion of bone. Knowing that now was not the time for further investigation, Kayla quickly hid it in her deep pocket and turned back to face the light her would-be rescuers shined towards her.
Jeremy’s eyes were narrowed slits, watching her with suspicion. He extended his hand again towards her slowly, defying her to shock him once more, and determined not to miss what happened a second time. Not understanding what just occurred and afraid of another episode, Kayla hesitated. Whether it was out of the fear of those eyes burning into her now, or just the intense desire to be free, she lowered her head, took a deep breath, and lifted her arm up towards him. Their hands met again and Kayla swallowed a sharp intake of breath. No searing pain came with his touch, but she noticed the hilt in her pocket grow warm and restless against her thigh. She closed her eyes, allowing herself to be lifted from the hole. Blindly grasping this stranger made her ascent feel more like a rescue.
Once she emerged, Kayla lay sprawled against the earth for a moment, finally feeling as though she could breathe easier. As was her habit, she clutched her chest, seeking the reassuring weight of her personal reliquary between her clothes and skin, but she felt nothing but her own flesh beneath a thin layer of fabric. Kayla gasped, her hands frantically searching her body and the dirt at her feet before she grabbed the torch and leaned forward, staring into the pit. She could make out her box lying on that marshy ground far below.
She felt Jeremy’s arm barring her from jumping without thinking. “It’s that important?” he asked softly.
Kayla searched for the right words to answer, but in her tense pause Jeremy had already leapt down, landing gracefully. She saw him bend low to grab her treasure, lingering a moment before pocketing the tiny box. He stood, drawing a dagger in each hand, and reaching up high, he buried his blades into the pit’s steep wall. He pulled himself up, continuing to stab the earth with his knives as he climbed. With only a small grunt of effort he took hold of higher ground and swung his legs over the edge of the hole. Drawing himself up, he wiped and sheathed his blades, and produced the locket. His fingers dragged heavily over its surface before dropping it into Kayla’s outstretched palms.
“Where are you going?” he asked stonily.
Jeremy turned his back. “What’s your name?”
“Kayla . . . Steelryn.”
She sensed his body stiffen before he started walking back towards camp. “Madeline is gone. You’re better off coming with us.”
Kayla stood staring at his back, weighing her narrow options, when she felt the small girl’s hand slip gently into hers. Looking down, she was met with bright eyes and a reassuring smile.
“My name’s Kittie. Don’t worry about Jeremy. He just gets a little grumpy after a good deed.” She laughed as she tugged on Kayla’s arm, eager to follow her friend.
“Wait . . . ! Where are you both headed?”
Kittie turned her face away to the wooded darkness, her voice dropping. “Like he said . . . Madeline is gone.” A moment passed before her hair flew in an arc back towards Kayla, followed by her wide grin, shattering the somber mood. “You should go with us. There are worse dangers than holes in the ground since the Eclipse . . . and now . . .” She ran with Kayla’s arm in her grasp, letting her last grave words dissolve into the heavy summer air.